The Battle for Moscow Russian Opposition at Odds over Path for Future

In the wake of the recent elections in Russia, opponents of newly elected President Vladimir Putin are struggling to find a common approach and viable new slogans. Some suggest that the best way to challenge Putin would be winning control of the Moscow city parliament and mayor's office.


By and

Sergei Parkhomenko's face is still red from the icy wind blowing in Moscow. It is 10 p.m. on Wednesday of last week, and Parkhomenko is unwinding in a steakhouse at the Belorussky Rail Terminal, in a neighborhood where Moscow is beginning to look a little like New York. It's really more of a bar, crowded with hundreds of young people who don't seem to mind that a steak costs the equivalent of €35 ($47) here. The people who can afford to come here are part of Moscow's hip and up-and-coming social class.

Parkhomenko, 48, is a journalist. He was the editor-in-chief of several magazines, and then worked as a publisher before taking a sabbatical to pursue a different mission throughout the city. Today Parkhomenko, representing the "League of Voters," spent six hours negotiating with senior officials from the Moscow police force.

At issue was a demonstration on March 10, by a movement called "For Honest Elections." It was the second major rally by opponents of the Kremlin in the wake of Russia's presidential election, this time on New Arbat, a major Moscow shopping avenue. Parkhomenko had managed to wrest a permit for this central location from the city government, and today walked down the street with police officers, past Wesna, a high-end Italian restaurant, the Penthouse strip club and the radio station Echo of Moscow, where he hosts a show on Fridays.

Negotiating with the government for permission to hold a demonstration against the government is a tough battle. It isn't waged over slogans or watchwords, but over where metal detectors and portable toilets are to be set up, and over how many people will be allowed to stand in each square meter of space. The police have told Parkhomenko that there are to be no more than two-and-a-half people per square meter, and, to complicate matters, they have only approved the sidewalk for protests. It's 300 meters long and 20 meters wide, or 6,000 square meters, so the demonstration is approved for 15,000 people. The police will only stop traffic at the site of the rally when the 15,001st protestor shows up. And it will be up to the police to determine how many protesters there are.

'We Have to Face the Truth: Putin Won'

Parkhomenko and his fellow activists want to present new evidence to expose the Kremlin's trickery. One week after what Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's chief-of-staff called the "cleanest elections in Russian history," it still isn't clear what the true results look like.

Parkhomenko relates an incident at his polling station, No. 149, where he says 300 drivers with a Moscow transportation agency suddenly showed up with a special permit to vote there (their director was the head of the polling station), and how almost all of them had voted for Putin. He also describes how, as if by some miracle, the number of eligible voters in Russia increased by 622,551 in the three months since the country's parliamentary elections.

But even if the Kremlin did tamper with up to 10 percent of the vote, this doesn't change the fact that Putin is the winner of this election. The numbers alone legitimize his victory. But Russia's opposition has trouble even accepting this logic.

This was evident last week during the first post-election demonstrations on Pushkin Square in Moscow. "We have to face the truth: Putin won," said Sergey Mitrokhin, the leader of the social liberal Yabloko Party, at the rally. He received a chorus of boos from the crowd.

Russia's opposition is in turmoil over what happens next, after the presidential election on March 4, and finds itself in a heated debate over how to interpret the fact that Putin received 13 million more votes in the presidential election than his party did in the December parliamentary election, and over the strategy and tactics it should pursue in its ongoing fight against the Kremlin.

Putting Down the Opposition

Putin clearly relishes the opposition's distress. His relief over his victory was almost physically palpable on the evening of the election. His cynical side immediately reemerged, as did his contempt for his adversaries.

The members of the opposition aren't even half as intelligent as ordinary Russian workers, Putin said. He claimed that the protests had "nothing to do with the election," and that the opposition had simply "stuck its finger up its nose and decided" that, contrary to initial statements, it was not going to accept the outcome after all.

Putin also did not call off his chief campaign manager, who had publicly referred to the protesters as the "unhealthy part" of the Russian people -- a term that was reminiscent of Stalin's reference to enemies of the people, who were to be physically purged.

The effects of Putin's return to brutal gutter talk were already evident at a protest on March 5, where attendance was lower than usual. "The fear is back," says Parkhomenko. "Many are worried that Putin will react to the protests with a new wave of repression."

But the other problem is the opposition itself. Its creative ideas and the ease with which it took to the streets in December seem to have evaporated, only to be replaced by radical rhetoric, with many of the speakers at rallies descending to the level of Putin's team.

The well-known blogger Alexei Navalny berated Putin as a "prick." And the journalist Olga Romanova shouted: "Ninety percent of the prison vote went to Putin. The criminals know who their godfather is. Off to prison for Putin!" The rhetoric caused some Muscovites to turn away from the protesters. "I felt like I was in a museum of paleontology, there were so many extinct species of the right and left sides of the political spectrum," one young activist complained.

A Need to Reinvent Itself

It's a mistake for the radical opposition leaders to claim that they don't need new slogans, that the call for new elections is enough, and that they will simply escalate the protests, if necessary. If the movement, which arose after the rigged parliamentary elections, now fails to offer something positive and concrete -- with no new proposals or new forms of political struggle -- it will run up against its limits.

"Once again, the progressive part of Russian society is in the process of gambling away a victory," says music critic and Putin opponent Artemy Troitsky. What he and others like him feel the opposition lacks are statements on its vision for the country's future.

While Putin bombarded the people with a series of programmatic articles after the December demonstrations, the opposition remained silent -- even though its leadership includes some of the country's top intellectuals, like author Boris Akunin, and men with government experience. The only activist to speak his mind was blogger Navalny, who wrote an amateurish article about the Russian economy. "We don't need reforms and new laws to fight corruption," he wrote, arguing that political will alone would be sufficient.

How can an opposition composed of liberals, members of the far left and right-wing extremists achieve a common voice? The fact that last Monday's rally ended in an orgy of police brutality was partly the result of men like Navalny failing to comply with agreements.

Despite their common cause, many opposition members have a deep aversion to one another. Former presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov are a case in point. Nemtsov has been known to call the renowned environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova a "slut" and author Akunin a "shit," because he refused to join Nemtsov's "Solidarnost" movement.

The situation isn't made any easier by the fact that the social makeup of the protesters changes with each rally, as new social groups constantly join the movement and others turn their backs on it. Many were scared away by the announcement that the protesters planned to establish a tent city in downtown Moscow. It immediately conjured up images of the 2004 overthrow of the government in Ukraine. In a country as plagued by revolutions as Russia, everyone fears such turmoil.

Gaining Power in Moscow

But there is one slogan that could become a realistic guideline, says journalist Parkhomenko, raising his voice over the din at the steakhouse in the Belorussky Rail Terminal. It would be: "The Battle for Moscow." The opposition must first capture the capital, says Parkhomenko.

On March 4, less than 47 percent of Muscovites voted for Putin, which is well below the national average. The last time Putin ran for office, in 2004, he still captured 70 percent of the vote in the capital. Now his opponents hope to challenge him in Moscow, a city that doesn't like him at all and in which the majority of voters in some downtown election districts voted for billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov instead.

But how exactly is this supposed to happen?

Parkhomenko says that since the Moscow city parliament no longer reflects the political situation in the city, its members should be recalled and representatives of the opposition should enter the parliament instead. The parliament should then elect Prokhorov as the city's mayor, he argues. Prokhorov, who achieved a respectable third-place finish nationwide in the presidential election, also advocates a takeover of power in Moscow.

The powerful office of mayor, which has always been political and, for this reason, is still appointed by the president, could be a launching pad for an attack on the Kremlin. Boris Yeltsin also began his battle against former President Mikhail Gorbachev from Moscow's city hall.

"But you need a lot of patience for that," says Parkhomenko.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.


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